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'The Work of Restoring and Repairing What Was Lost and Broken' Art by Anthony Gebrehiwot (TonyxTones)

'The Work of Restoring and Repairing What Was Lost and Broken'

M. NourbeSe Philip in conversation with Phillip Dwight Morgan about the mistranslation of "Zong!".

In September 1781, a British slave ship departed Africa’s Guinea Coast and made its way to Jamaica carrying 440 enslaved Africans. After the captain of the ship, Luke Collingwood, made several navigation errors, ultimately tripling the duration of the voyage from approximately six weeks to eighteen weeks, he ordered his crew to begin throwing enslaved Africans overboard to their deaths. He did this so that he could claim the insurance taken out on the lives of the Africans on board the ship or, as referenced in the legal documentation of the time, “cargo.” Over the course of ten days, Collingwood and his crew murdered more than one hundred Africans.

First published in 2008, M. NourbeSe Philip’s book-length poem Zong! grapples with the horrors of the Zong massacre using words and fragments of words taken exclusively from the case report of the massacre, Gregson v. Gilbert. Since its publication, Zong! has become one of the most widely studied literary works produced in Canada.

In 2016, M. NourbeSe Philip received an email from a translator requesting permission to translate Zong! into Italian. The translator, Renata Morresi, had not yet secured a publisher but was nonetheless pursuing the project. Philip advised Morresi to contact Wesleyan University Press (WUP), the US publisher of Zong!, who owned the rights to the poem. Five years later, Philip received an invitation from an Italian publisher, Benway Series Press, to attend the launch of the Italian translation of Zong! in Rome. Notably, between 2016 and 2021, Philip had not been in communication with Morresi or Benway. 

Philip was dismayed to find that the translation, which had proceeded without her involvement or authorization, did not adhere to a central principle of the original text: that no two words should be positioned directly above or below one another. This principle is critical to Zong! and performs a recuperative function, as it allows the words to breathe on the page where the enslaved Africans on the Zong could not.

Despite Philip’s objections to the unauthorized translation, Morresi, Benway and WUP each maintained that there was no significant difference between the original and the translation. Philip sent multiple emails and letters to Benway, WUP, Renata Morresi and the Canada Council for the Arts (which provided funding for the project). She asked that they halt publication of the translation, but Benway ignored these requests.

In response, Philip launched a public petition calling for the Italian translation to be destroyed. While the petition has more than 1,200 signatures and both WUP and Morresi have recently offered to pay to remove the existing copies of the translation from bookshelves, Benway Series has refused to destroy the translation. Benway has even gone so far as to label Philip’s demands “authoritarian.” In this interview with M. NourbeSe Philip, we speak about the ways that this situation exemplifies racist and oppressive dynamics within the publishing and translation communities.

Phillip Dwight Morgan: Benway has made disparaging comments about your character while simultaneously continuing to promote Zong! and the unauthorized translation. What impact has the publisher’s efforts to bifurcate your name and work from you as a person had upon you?

M. NourbeSe Philip: I think what they have done is classic. They’ve taken a page from the colonial playbook. Those of us who know history or aspects of it know that this was what happened in Africa, and Asia and Oceania. But let me focus on Africa in terms of aesthetics, particularly with respect to the plastic arts, where the form was taken—was bifurcated from the culture. It transformed modern art. We had the modernist art movement, we had cubism by Picasso and others of his ilk.

However, what is particularly and egregiously ­offensive about what Benway has done is that they appropriated the language of anti-colonial and decolonization movements and turned that against me to accuse me of “undermining the practice” of translation because English is a “widespread language” vis-a-vis a minority language like Italian. They also said that my calling for the book to be destroyed was akin to “practices of authoritarian and fundamentalist ­regimes around the world.”

PDM: How has this impacted your creative process?

MNP: Profoundly, in a word. This struggle began in mid-June of 2021 and my intention last year was to take time to work on a couple of collections of writings.  I have not been able to do that. In fact, I’ve missed deadlines for grant applications as well as for a couple of retreats that I wanted to place myself in the running for. It has also had an effect on my health, and a major effect on my emotional and psychic life, which, as I’m sure you know, has bearing on one’s writing life. I spent several weeks with stomach ailments and I realized after going to the doctor it was the stress from this situation.

PDM: What does your exclusion from the key decisions in this process reveal about the publishing industry, and more specifically, the power dynamic between presses and authors?

MNP: I think it reveals a very extractive way of dealing with writers. Wesleyan University Press was well within their rights to sell the translation rights to Benway without contacting me, because that was what the contract said. But the fact that something is legal, that something is a part of the legal structure and framework that we live with, does not mean that it is ethical, or moral, or should be accepted. We only have to think of the 400-year existence of slavery in the Western world, which was entirely legal.

From what I understand, having done just some cursory research, it is accepted and common practice today among translators that, if the writer is living, you don’t do a translation without being in touch with the writer. One of the first things that came up through this Google search was a site that stressed that “if you [were] lucky enough to pick a living poet to translate...” you should find out what their impulses and their drives are and what helped to create the work in question. So Morresi and Benway were entirely ignoring commonly accepted standards and practices in how they carried out this translation. It is interesting that once they were challenged, they then hid behind the law and the contract and so on.

[Editor’s note: In a statement to Maisonneuve, Morresi claimed she asked the author to participate in the translation process multiple times in 2016 and received no response.]

I know that a couple of translator organizations have been very concerned both here and in the US. LTAC/ATTLC, the Canadian association, was very interested in this and actually made a statement in support of my position. 

PDM: Is this situation a reflection of individual failure, systemic failure, or a combination of the two?

MNP: I think it’s a combination of the two. The translator and I had a few exchanges after I was sent the proofs. At no point have I heard from her a statement along the lines of,  “I understand what you’re saying,” even as I tried to explain over and over again via emails what the problems were with the translation.

There is an inherent formal structure to Zong!. Os, the first section, presents in the more conventional way of poetry. They’re all very tight poems, speaking to the law, the constriction of the law if you will. The following sections can be seen as a response to and a transformation of that first, restrictive section that challenges the morality of the law. Indeed, Zong! #11 states clearly: “suppose the law not / a crime…”

In the following five sections in which language degrades as the madness of the rationality of the law is revealed, there is embedded—I am tempted to say it is subterranean—an ordering or governing principle. I am somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of ordering or governing since those are actions that emanate from the outside and are imposed. The principle I am talking about is one which arises from the very nature of the massacre—drowning—in which those thrown overboard would have had to struggle to breathe. In the five sections that follow Os—Sal, Ventus, Ratio and Ferrum—no word, fragment, or phrase can come directly under another.

The words must have space directly above to breathe, and in this way the text, Zong!, breathes for those people who could not breathe when they were thrown overboard the Zong and drowned. That is non-negotiable for me. This is how Zong! the book, the text, honours these Ancestors, not necessarily blood Ancestors, but Ancestors all the same. And when we read it, particularly when we read it collectively, we participate in that honouring.

PDM: Do you think Morresi, Benway Series and WUP have any sense of why it was so important to let the words breathe on the page?

MNP: What I have said repeatedly is that the text is recuperative. Renata Morresi and Benway Series and, for a while, WUP refused to accept the discrepancy between the mistranslation and the original publication. While WUP eventually acknowledged it and agreed that the books should be destroyed, the former two have refused to do so.

Morresi claimed to be concerned with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean that involves Italy and other nearby countries such as Greece. In one of her emails to me she drew an equivalency—a false one to my mind—between the Transatlantic slave trade and current crisis that far too often results in death as crowded boats capsize and migrants drown. This, she claimed, was why Zong! was so important to her and so necessary for Italy.

PDM: Benway refused to destroy the unauthorized translation partly because they had a deadline to meet for Canada Council, which provided funding for the project. You brought these issues to the Council’s attention, and they did not respond. How should they have responded? What is due diligence when awarding grants?

MNP: The Council funded Benway to the tune of $13,350, without which, this publication could not have happened. It took me a long time to find the officer in charge of translations at the Council. I sent letters to the Canadian Consulate in Rome, since they seemed to have been involved, as well as to the Council here. I felt I was sending it into the ether, which was correct, since I have not received a reply to either piece of correspondence. 

[Editor’s note: In a statement to Maisonneuve, the Canada Council for the Arts said it was copied on email exchanges and tagged in social media posts related to this subject, but did not receive any direct correspondence from the author. The Council also noted that the organization’s mandate does not permit it to get involved in external disputes.]

In late August of 2021, WUP let me know that Benway was going ahead with the publication, since they had told the Council that they would publish in June 2021. Benway and WUP and myself had been in communication since mid-June when I had received the proofs from Benway, to which I immediately objected. Surely, the ethical course of action for Benway would have been to approach the Council and outline what the problem was. Given that the Council’s homepage states that it is committed to equity for Black and African-descended Canadians and Indigenous people, I don’t see how the Council could have forced Benway to publish that book in light of the issues I was raising.

Benway wanted to publish the book. I think they wanted to show me that they weren’t going to accede to my demands that they construed as part of “cancel culture” and they have treated me with contempt even as they talk about how wonderful the work is.

PDM: In many Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion efforts, there are clear constraints upon how Black and Indigenous people can express themselves; there’s a certain kind of hollowness to these initiatives. I wonder if the responses to your concerns stem from the fact that there isn’t really a space for work that is restorative. There are many spaces willing to display Black trauma but, less so, a restorative element. Does this resonate with you?

MNP: Your question is a lovely one, and it has several aspects. I am in support of these equity efforts. I suppose we have to begin somewhere. But they do have a certain look to them, curating what the public is supposed to ingest around Blackness, and so on. And I think you’re quite right, that Zong! defies those categories. As I mentioned, the text is recuperative—it is a form of reparations that we do for ourselves. It’s not that I’m against the attempts at equity, but I think we have to be very careful.

For me the fundamental question is, is it sufficient to achieve “equality” in a system that is so inherently exploitative and rapacious—towards Black, brown and poor people, and towards the earth? This is not to say that we should not be seeking equality; indeed, we must keep up our demands in all the areas we know only too well have been underserved in our communities—policing and justice, housing, education, health, and the arts. We must, however, have an understanding of the underpinnings of this system and how it works; we must recognize that often systems change enough only to remain the same.

Which is where your point about the display of Black trauma is very relevant. There is a way in which this society—Western white society in particular—is invested in seeing Black pain, and if we aren’t careful, as artists, then we begin to shape our work to fit the mould that has been preformed for us—once again. We must maintain a critical edge. It’s a double-edged sword because artists want recognition for their work, so resisting the blandishments on offer can often be next to impossible.

PDM: So how do we navigate this double-edged sword?

MNP: There is a certain kind of reparations that only we can do for ourselves and I see Zong! as one example of that. I describe the work as restorative and ­recuperative. They, on the other hand, the translator and fellow travellers, talk about the work being a “masterpiece,” which is why, according to them, it must be translated. That’s the language that they use. Contrary to this, a scholar and colleague of mine talks about the “spiritual architecture” of the work, which the Italian publishers dismissed. But that is the work I feel we have to do for ourselves—the work of restoring and repairing what was lost and broken. 

I feel very strongly that it is our artists, our griots, our painters and poets, our musicians who have taken on that burden of healing, of getting us over, to use the African American expression, helping us day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute to perform reparations for ourselves. Because we make a mistake if we think that there is a figure or sum of money in this world that can ever compensate for what we’ve lost. There is no amount of money that can, which is not to say we should not be compensated for loss of life and forced labour and all the other assaults and deprivations. But there are certain forms of reparations that only we can give ourselves and our art is crucial to that.

PDM: I’ve noticed that, in their correspondence with you, Benway never uses the language of race, racism, coloniality, or even Blackness. Instead, they speak of individual intentions and efforts. What do you think is going on there?

MNP: I think what is going on on their part is a commitment to remaining or pretending to remain ignorant of an earlier period that we’re still living with, a period that continues to throw a long shadow: colonialism. As if Italy did not invade Ethiopia—not once but twice—1895 and 1935. As if Italy is an innocent in this obscene practice that has laid waste to people and lands and that still holds us all hostage. 

They know that they’re bankrupt of ideas. They have no legitimate response to what they’ve done so they have to turn to attacking me personally and praising the hard work of the translator. It is all of a piece with the reference to Zong! being a “masterpiece.” That is the appeal to the individual; it is intended to be seductive. What they fail to realize is that from the very beginning Zong! declared itself to be a work that was told to me by Setaey Adamu Boateng who represents the Ancestors. This appears on the cover and the spine of the book. Zong! is not about me; it never was about me, the individual.

They failed to grasp that the work is about relationship—every word or phrase is in a spatial relationship with another or others. In a similar way the Ancestors of the work, so to speak, are in a spatial relationship with us across time. Understanding that is how we begin to repair and restore ourselves and language like “masterpiece,” particularly in the way Morresi and Benway use it, is of a historical moment that we are trying to, indeed must, dismantle if we are to survive.

PDM: It strikes me that there’s a human component missing from this dynamic. Basic human decency and protocols of respect are absent from their interactions with you...

MNP: Aren’t we living with the results of that in the world today? The failure to see certain people as human, as worthy of respect…

The translator said that she believed that her translation of Zong! could be used to ameliorate the migrant crisis in Italy. Had she ever thought to seek out and find Black writers or writers of colour who were descendants of those who had made the crossing? Had she ever thought perhaps of mentoring one or two so that they could tell the story or stories about what that experience and the ensuing life in Italy as a person of colour was all about? What connection has she tried to make with anyone connected to this experience? Why would you take the work of a stranger to Italy—myself—and desecrate it in an attempt to show that you care about the migrant crisis in Italy? That is a form of madness. And we’ve been living with the fallout of that kind of European madness since 1492. ✲

Phillip Dwight Morgan is a first-generation Canadian writer of Jamaican heritage. His writings explore issues of race, representation, and state violence and have appeared in Maclean’s, the Toronto Star, CBC News and the Walrus, among others. He views writing as a process of liberation and self-discovery.